Under an uncharacteristically clear London sky, I looked behind me as I rode across the playground on a pink scooter that was much too small for me. I was being chased by two three-year-olds, the make-believe cops in rapid pursuit of their robber. They shouted stop, stop! and I slowed down only enough to keep myself a foot ahead of them, mocking fear at my inevitable capture. In this moment, as I smiled broadly at the children chasing me, I realized how much fun I was genuinely having. In this small, enclosed playground in Westminster, everything had changed.
I was intimidated by the families that came to Cardinal Hume at first. They were all impoverished, and many of them recent immigrants. As part of my internship in the day care center, I would be taking care of their small children twice a week. It seemed strange to me that in the heart of Westminster, among the high rises and only blocks from Parliament Square, there could be such poverty. However, maybe it shouldn’t have been. In the past twenty years, the number of immigrants in the UK has doubled to 8 million, with a third of these people living in London. The city is one of the most diverse in the world, and people have come for reasons that are as numerous as their origins- for work, refuge, profit, personal development.
Immigrants have not been received warmly by many native Brits, who feel that they’re losing out in the competition for jobs and housing; politicians have added to the tension. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged in 2010 to pass legislation that would limit the number of annual immigrants to below 100,000; the current number of migrants is three times this. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) plans to go into the next election with a promise to ban any immigration in Britain for five years, while immigration policy is rethought. While London does hold a great appeal for many foreigners, many of these people struggle with the politics and ethnic tensions of immigration.
Many of the families I met at Cardinal Hume were immigrants from Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Their origins and thick accents, as much as I tried to deny it, did make me uncomfortable in the beginning. Back in Iowa, I had never been around people of a different religion or culture, and I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to make a connection with the families. I looked through the glass doors that led out to the small playground, and the iron gates that surrounded it. I watched the women in hijabs as they pushed strollers through the gates and down the ramp from outside each morning, small kids teetering behind them. I often wondered what their hair looked like underneath the scarf; was it cut short or long, of a dark chestnut color, curly?
What would these women think of me, a young, foreign girl? Will they hate me because I’m American? I worried that these families had been displaced from their home countries because of political unrest or wars, which the United States may have played a part in. What if they were from Iraq or Afghanistan, had family who became casualties of war? Or the only American they ever saw was dressed in combat gear with a gun in hand, and the images of war would forever smear their perception of the US? However, the women scanned me without recognition; perhaps they saw my blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin and thought that I was another one of the Danish students who came to Cardinal Hume for a student teaching opportunity.
The children were even more terrifying. They were only three or four years old and some barely knew any English, but they knew that I was a new person, and didn’t listen to my directions. I had never worked with kids before, had no nieces or nephews or cousins that were this age; I didn’t know how to reason with them or how I could make them laugh. They raced around the main indoor play area from paint table to playdough table to the back room, where they scattered the books and puzzles set out for them. It was not a particularly large area, and the kids constantly ran into each other; the toy truck on a string one dragged behind him would invariably trip another. When it was time to go outside to play on the playground, all fifteen or so of them would crowd around the double doors leading outside, pounding and screaming on the wood. Even after weeks of being around them, I couldn’t stop a tantrum or control any of them. I simply hadn’t worked there long enough to be recognized as an authority figure. Under my constant gaze, Yusef still continued to eat paint (or anything else he could get his hands on, for that matter) and Hannah threatened to smack me every day.
Within a month, it became easier to deal with the kids. I found that most of them remembered my name, and begged me to help them cut out shapes in their playdough, or to push them on the tire swing as high as it would go. There were significantly fewer threats to smack me, and I got actually got some help cleaning up the strewn pieces of the foam puzzles. I had genuine fun being chased around on a scooter, and could calm down a crying child who had been pushed. I grew to adore Yahya’s chubby cheeks and shy smile when I complimented him, Zaid’s fervor with football, and Emily’s willingness to unclasp herself from her mother’s leg if I offered her a handful of playdough.
There was Veronica, who had been having a hard time learning English; her family was from Spain. I had taken years of Spanish classes, and although I was a bit rusty, I could easily converse with a four-year-old. I would ask, in Spanish, about her favorite book, her favorite color, how to count to ten. She would tilt her head to the side, carefully point her index finger towards me, dark eyes full of curiosity. “Se Española?” Are you Spanish? I would laugh and nod my head, no, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride that I was the only worker who could communicate in her native language. It made me feel like I had a rare gift of extreme value; I could speak to Veronica in the way that her family at home would speak to her. As we read books together I would point to a picture, qué es esto? What is this? She gave me the Spanish word for tree, elephant, brother, and then the English equivalent. We were both foreigners here, but together, things didn’t feel quite so strange.
I remember Anfal, one of the shyer girls, would rarely talk to anyone. I would sit with her at a plastic table made for people with much tinier legs than mine, asking her if she could pour me a cup of imaginary tea from her play kettle. She obliged, but no words ever came out of her mouth. I knew she knew English because her mom spoke it perfectly, but I couldn’t even get a yes or an incomprehensible babble. Not even a nod of her head. Anfal’s lips remained staunchly pressed together, and sometimes a sly smile teased up the corners of her mouth, as if saying I dare you to get me to talk to you. I learned to simply continue my one-sided conversation.
One day Anfal sat next to me at the round wooden table where we put out playdough. I said my greetings, expecting nothing but her smile in return. I noticed her staring at me, and when I turned to her she had outstretched her hand to give me a piece of her playdough. And then, she started talking to me. I wish I could remember what she said, but I was so surprised that she was actually speaking that the moment became a little fuzzy. Not only was Anfal chattering away like we had grown up together, but she had offered me her playdough, the invitation to continue the conversation. I felt as though I was part of an exclusive group that Anfal made sure had room for few, her mom Latifah, and now me.
Latifah is a young mother, a bit quiet, and even though her family had very little, she spoiled Anfal rotten. She was collaborating with a group of other women from her Muslim community on a video project to show to a housing committee, which they hoped would lend perspective into what housing is like for immigrants. They wanted to voice their opinions and ideas, in the hopes that it could spark a change.
To my surprise, I was invited to sit in on some of their meetings, and even got to see the first version of the video. Latifah didn’t want her face shown in the video, so a cartoon drawing was used in her place. The cartoon Latifah explained how difficult it was to live in such a small apartment- the only place where she could have space to herself was a small stool placed in the corner of the kitchen. The camera showed the rest of the apartment, the tiny bedroom with a twin size bed and mats on the floor where the family of four slept. The camera took us to another woman’s apartment, showed the mold that encrusted the windowsills. Their living space looked dark, and there were water stains on the walls and ceiling. She spoke about how her husband had developed severe gout in his fingers and toes and was unable to work; she showed me pictures of his swollen joints on her phone. They wanted my honest opinion about their video and its message; my suggestions were actually something of value to them. I told them that I had only wished their video was longer so I could hear more of their stories.
After a few months, I had developed friendships with many of the other parents that came to Cardinal Hume. I even found an unexpected connection with one mother through chemistry classes. Her favorite was analytical, mine is organic. Her daughter is Sophie, a beautiful little dark-skinned girl with big, dark green eyes. Ashamedly I can’t remember the mother’s name. However, I’ll never forget one of her comments to me and one of the Danish students. She told us that she and Sophie rarely came to the afternoon play sessions, and Sophie was nervous when she didn’t see any of her friends. However, her mother told us that she could tell once Sophie saw us, that she was no longer scared. A few times I caught her staring at me as I held a child on my hip, pointing to the paper crafts strung up above our heads, a bright smile showing her gap tooth as she leaned forward, elbows resting on the railing. The mother told me she had been able to travel to the US, to Boston and Washington, DC. I wondered where she had gotten her education, if she would study chemistry again in the future, how she ended up in poverty. I never had the courage to find out more, to somehow tiptoe around the question of how did you end up in poverty?
After getting to know these families better, I began to care more about what the kids’ lives were like outside of daycare. Did they struggle? Were they happy for the rest of the 21 hours of the day that they weren’t here? The kids always seemed happy at the Center, and this might have been because this was one place where they could just be kids. I’m not sure if the same happiness ever carried over to their time at home. How could it? These families came to London with very little, lived in poverty, and were struggling to get out of it.
Anfal lived with her parents and sister in a one bedroom apartment; the parents and girls rotated between sleeping on the floor and in the one bed. Yusef, the infamous paint-eater, suddenly needed to move away and never came to the Center again, because of something that happened in the family. I assumed the worst; a matter of violence or deportation. Some of the kids’ circumstances really did scare me. There was another girl, Miley Rose, who was the angriest child I’ve ever met, her home life violent and unstable. She was one of the few children who was actually born in the UK, and was named after Miley Cyrus by her faux-fur-vest-wearing, hair-so-bleached-it-was-falling-out, but nonetheless sweet, mother. Kicking and screaming and pulling out her curly blonde locks at the slightest upset, she could be a terror. I was warned about Miley Rose from the beginning. Don’t bend down too close to her, she has “visitors” in her hair. A coworker told me that once Miley Rose said that she saw two boys kill a little baby. I wanted to believe this was something she saw on TV.
These kids, whom I had grown to adore, might not ever escape from poverty. They may never get an education or leave their overcrowded and unsanitary housing complex; they may get into trouble. What if they end up back at Cardinal Hume ten years from now, because they need to use the Youth Homeless Shelter? I couldn’t imagine sweet and innocent Veronica or Yahya getting into trouble, yet I know nothing will come to them easily. The unfortunate circumstances of poverty have already begun to define what their future will probably be like, regardless of how clever and kind they are at three years old. The ways of the world and the severities of their situations haven’t hardened them yet.
UK politics haven’t affected them too much yet, but I fear what may arise in the future. UKIP could succeed in banning immigration for years, or ethnic tensions could take a nasty turn, and then what would happen to these kids and their parents? I don’t know what they would do if they had to leave yet another country, or where they would go. Life would not be better for them if they had to return to their home country, their children would never know stability. The lives of these immigrants already seem so fragile; one change in income or housing might put them on the streets, and stricter immigration laws could further deplete their resources.
On my last day at Cardinal Hume, I chatted for a bit with Latifah after lunch. When it was time for them to go, she instructed Anfal to give me a hug; I knelt down and the little girl with frizzy pigtails gave me the whimsical and clumsy embrace of a child, her mischievous smile still present. I stood up, and Latifah opened her arms. I wasn’t expecting a hug from her, but was moved by this sweet gesture. After a few seconds I tried to pull away, give Latifah my thanks for her kindness, but she only pulled me in again for a tighter embrace.